It has been said that tourists – and mostly American tourists – are the only reason that Kilmainham Gaol is still open because most Irish couldn’t be bothered with it these days. My new friend who is now happily married here in the U.S. agrees with the travel books that say things like that because he and his generation seem to be sick to death of the glorious dead mentality and couldn’t care less about the history and the Troubles that have haunted the country since even before the Rising of 1916. In fact, he was shocked that we were still asked questions about our religion and last names on our travels to Ireland at the end of last year, both in the Republic and the North because he thought those kinds of things were finished.
However, when I did tour Kilmainham Gaol, I was in a group mostly made up of Irish people and all seemed just as profoundly affected by it as I was. Perhaps it was because of the off season which meant my group was thankfully smaller when we went through the infamous prison, or perhaps it was an anomaly altogether but I was glad for it. It made for a decidedly more intimate and more personal experience.
Today would be Nelson Mandela’s 96th birthday. Once a warrior branded a terrorist, he then became the leader of South Africa and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He died while I was in Belfast, and people were leaving fresh flowers under his mural. Here’s a lovely picture of the mural, with the flowers underneath to celebrate today which is Nelson Mandela day.
flowers on the mural
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains,
but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”
On the last day of our recent journey in Ireland, it was pouring down rain and we were headed back toward Shannon from Belfast. We were on the main highway and getting cranky because of the storm and from the bigger roads, there’s not a lot of super beautiful scenery or many interesting things to see . It was not the way we wanted to leave, so once we were in the west, we picked an exit at random and started exploring it. There were a few ruins here and there. There were a few historical signs pointing off in random directions and we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere on a country road hunting for castles. A tractor was coming at us from the other direction and as we pulled over to let him pass, we asked him if there were castles nearby. He told us about 3 or 4 of them and ended with “but you know it’s raining, right?” He shook his head when we said we didn’t care, muttering something about crazy girls. Then he began to give us directions to the one that wasn’t a hotel saying, “Well then, just go up the road a few miles, look for the dog at the top of the hill, pull into the driveway of the stone house, knock on the door, and ask for the key to the castle.” We thanked him and continued on down the lane. We found the dog, shivering and wet. We pulled into the drive, and knocked on the door of the stone house. When a very startled man answered and we asked for the key to the castle, he too responded with “You know it’s raining, right?” while he frantically looked for it. After a phone call or two and a reasonably thorough search, this is what he gave us – there’s no mistaking that it is the key to a castle, with that kind of key chain.
I write for a few places – one of my longtime favorites is the Atlas Obscura which is a combination of an obscure travel guide and a historical Atlas. Their Irish section was woefully sparse before I filled it out (which I am still doing) and sometimes I like to share the entries.
The deserted village of Slievemore was one of the first I knew I had to add when I went to Ireland. We were there in the early hours of the morning and it was pouring down rain but we explored it anyway.
Interesting fact: When you’re deep into the Gaeltacht island of Achill in December, it is important to note that there are no off season accommodations. In fact the Annexe Pub was the only place we could find anyone and the amazing bartender had to call a friend who owns the summer hostel to turn on the heat and give us a room for the night. It was a much appreciated and really lovely thing for him to do for the crazy tourists who were traveling without an itinerary. If you make it out that way, have a pint – the Guinness was perfect – and give him some love from the crazy American ladies that he saved from a freezing storm.
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